The dangerous thing about stereotypes is that they’re often built on a kernel, however small, of truth. And the ones about Asian-Americans aren’t any different – so the latest research appearing in the journal PNAS attempts to get to the bottom of the stereotype of Asian-American academic prowess. Are tiger moms — so-called for their hyper-disciplining parenting and their laser-like focus on achievement and performance — to thank? Deeper financial pockets that can fund tutors and summer school? Or are Asian Americans just smarter than white kids?
I’ve thought about this myself. That stereotype of the over-achieving, over-booked, good-at-math-and-science Asian-American? That’s me. I got good grades in school. I took summer school classes. I read voraciously – in one summer, I read all 100 books on a list that was supposed to sustain us through the four years of high school. I spent every Saturday in back-to-back piano lessons, music theory and ballet classes. My parents assumed I would go to college, and I did. My parents assumed I would go to graduate school, and I did. For a career, I chose to write about health and science.
But I stayed out of the brouhaha when Amy Chua roared about the Tiger Mom, confidently defending her strict and, to some, draconian parenting methods to keep her kids on track to becoming all they could be. Maybe it hit too close to home — there was a lot that was familiar in the way she “encouraged” her kids to practice their musical instruments for hours until they got it right. I remember feeling chained to the piano bench on warm sunny days when all I wanted to do was take a dip in the pool or just hang out with friends. (Did I mention that my piano lessons continued over summer vacation, at my teacher’s house?)
But I think my ambivalence had more to do with a sense that there was something elitist in the argument of Asian-American exceptionalism – that Asian parents were endowed with some special ability to appreciate the value of effort and the importance of pushing their kids to succeed, a skill that remained out of reach to other parents for whatever reason. That wasn’t my experience. I saw the same emphasis on exceptionalism and achievement among my other, non-Asian friends, and wasn’t quite buying the idea that parents from the Far East had a lock on the way to get the most out of their kids.
So I was intrigued by how Amy Hsin and Yu Xie attempted to explain the academic advantage of Asian-Americans over whites. Hsin, from Queens College at the City University of New York, and Xie, from the University of Michigan, quickly found that higher socio-economic status and greater intellect didn’t contribute as much as some researchers have thought to the grade gap. Even recent immigrants who didn’t have much in the way of financial or social support still tended to do better in school than non-Asian students born and raised in the U.S. And from kindergarten throughout high school, Asian-American students score about the same as whites on standardized tests.
That leaves the work ethic, which Hsin and Xie found accounted for almost all of the grade gap between Asian-American and white students. And that was driven by two factors, both of which have more to do with social and cultural factors than racial ones. Among the more than 5200 Asian-American and white students from two large datasets that followed them from kindergarten into high school, Asian-American students were able to take advantage of social support systems that helped to translate their effort into success. In their communities, families are surrounded by ways to enhance education – from word-of-mouth advice about the best school districts to resources like books, videos and websites, to cram schools for after-school classes. “The Tiger Mom argument neglects these social resources and forces that sustain and reinforce the work ethic,” says Hsin.
In other words, it takes a village. It also takes a culture that may have less to do with race specifically, and more to do with broader social factors such as immigration.“ Asian-American youth are more likely to attribute intellect and academic success to effort rather than innate ability,” she says. That’s a natural outgrowth of the belief that success – in school, in work, and in life -- is a meritocratic commodity; the more you put in, the more you get out. When quizzed about whether they thought math skills were innate or learned, most of the white students believed it was a skill you were born with while the Asian-Americans were more likely to think it was learned, and acquired with effort.
The advantage that brings to their GPAs, however, does come with a price. Hsin also found that Asian-American students were more likely to have more self-image problems and more conflicted relationships with their parents than their white counterparts. The pressure to perform seems to take a toll on those who fail to meet expectations as well as those who do – for the latter, the expectation to be successful makes the achievement less satisfactory and less fulfilling.
So Tiger Moms may be on to something, however obvious it may seem: hard work does pay off, albeit at the cost of some self-esteem. But it may be giving them too much credit to say they do it alone. And looking back, I have to admit, however begrudgingly, that all that discipline has probably made me a more organized and confident adult. But don’t tell my mom.